A Painted Field, a collection of shorter lyrics and longer sequences, is Scottish writer/editor Robin Robertson's first book of poetry. Robertson, the publishing director of Jonathan Cape, oversees the works-in-progress of such educated and erudite imaginations and talents as Anne Carson, Thomas Dilworth, Alison Kennedy, Seamus Deane, and Sharon Olds.
Naturally, the influential position Robertson holds — alongside his ability to identify a certain classic stylishness among select authors — would generate intense curiosity vis-à-vis the poetry Robertson himself writes (among various interested parties located throughout the English-speaking world of contemporary literature).
Robertson, a technical maestro, writes exquisitely crafted and obsessively controlled poems honed, shaped, and razored to a fine exactitude. Each entry in this auspicious and unpretentious début shimmers with a concentrated intensity not often apparent in lesser works by Robertson's postmodernist counterparts, a point worth noting in this context (primarily because, if nothing else, the poet forcefully levels the fashionable field of postmodernism in the anything-but-complacent subtext informing the work).
A Painted Field opens with "New Gravity," for example, a brief yet substantial lyric which presents ten highly polished and multi-layered lines articulating a complex attitude towards "this place, this whole business" as the poem's narrator speaks of telling a child about the birth of a sibling in the most moribund of settings, a graveyard filled with shadows filtered through the "half-light of ivy / and headstone."
The crisp mathematical precision of many of Robertson's utterances provides an effective counterbalance for those issues which profoundly concern the creator of the poems. To his credit, the poet's poet does not allow either prurient self-disclosure nor soppy sentimentalism to overwhelm his work, a fact which may annoy readers accustomed to "the bare-all school of poetic fools" (where students of "love-gone-wrong" and "life-not-right" expose their innermost tawdry traumas in angst-ridden drivel dramas which, for the most part, still dominate the contemporary poetic field).
"Camera Obscura," a fanciful docu-poetic (but no less profound) meditation "on the personal and artistic life of David Octavius Hill — an indifferent painter but pioneering photographer in Edinburgh in the mid-nineteenth century," repays attentive reading (particularly since Robertson effortlessly captures the self-referential Romantic strain in a frame-by-framed refrain, evidenced most acutely in the collocation of words surrounding the then-novel artform, from "panning," "stopped," and "moving," to "focus," and "exposure" which yields to an angle on negative capability simultaneously admitting of darkness and light, absence and presence, aethereality and substantiality, those "ghosts returned to their bodies" at the "Dead Centre, 1858" notwithstanding):
"The Flaying of Marsyas," perhaps one of the finest poems written in the English language, recounts the story of the unlucky satyr of Greek mythology who was skinned alive for incurring the wrath of Apollo.
"A Painted Field by Robin Robertson" originally appeared in The Toronto Star (25 April 1998).
© 1998-2009 Judith Fitzgerald. Robin Robertson's photograph © 2009 Niall McDiarmid.
All Rights Reserved. (Gracious Hat Tip to Peter Scowen and Dr. Thomas Dilworth.)